Is Bursitis Busting Up the Joint?

Pity the poor bursa. We have about 150 of these simple, fluid-filled sacs. Most of us have never heard of them until they start hurting. 

All together, they're called "bursae." They protect and lubricate joints. They reduce rubbing as bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments do their jobs. Bursae vary in size. But many (like those in the shoulder) are about the size of a silver dollar.

What is bursitis and what causes it?

Bursae can become swollen and painful. This condition is called bursitis. That makes simple movements of your shoulder, elbow, hip, or knee seem like a huge effort.

Overuse and the trauma of direct impact are the most common causes of bursitis.

As you age, you can injure bursae more easily. The sacs become drier over the years. Also, damage happens from wear and tear in and around your joints over time.

Are bursitis and tendinitis the same?

People often mistake bursitis for tendinitis. In tendinitis, an inflamed tendon (a fibrous band tying muscle to bone) can cause joint pain.

A softball player might suffer bursitis of the elbow or shoulder from repeated throwing. Or maybe in the knees from bending low to the ground to serve as a catcher.

Housework causes bursitis, too. For example, people who kneel to clean, garden, or work on a roof are at risk of developing bursitis of the knee.

How can you prevent bursitis?

Experts say that prevention is better than treatment. It's important to listen to your body. Don't overdo it when you feel pain or extreme tiredness. If you're kneeling to garden, for instance, you can help your knees by taking regular breaks. Try using a rubber pad as a cushion.

If you're playing a sport, pay close attention to the basic movements and seek quality coaching. You'll be less likely to use poor mechanics and you'll reduce the chance for injury.

You can also help prevent bursitis by stretching regularly.

What is the treatment for bursitis?

Most bursitis goes away without medical attention in 1 to 2 weeks. Many people never realize that an inflamed bursa caused the pain.

Self-treatment of bursitis includes:

  • Don't do the activity that led to pain.

  • Use ice for the first 48 hours after an activity causes pain. Apply the ice wrapped in a towel, 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day. After a couple of days, use moist heat before physical activity and ice after activity, if your healthcare provider agrees.

  • Elevate the injury (when it's possible and not painful) to reduce swelling.

  • Take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, for pain and swelling. Always first consult with your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter medicines.

If your pain is severe, doesn’t go away, or interferes with daily activities, it may be time to see a healthcare provider to rule out other causes.

A healthcare provider diagnoses bursitis by putting your injured joint through a gentle range of motions. They will push lightly on the skin above the painful joint. You may also need an X-ray.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory medicine. They may inject the injured bursa with cortisone to ease swelling and pain. The healthcare provider also may prescribe gentle exercise at home. This can improve blood flow to the joint and the bursa and increase the range of motion.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rahul Banerjee MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2023
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